By Ian Thomas Wilson (Rated G)
Santa Claus, good old Saint Nick, the bringer of yuletide joy throughout Europe and North America. The historical figure behind Santa is the Christian saint and bishop, Nicholas of Myra. He was born sometime in the 4th century in Patara, modern-day Turkey (then known as Asia Minor), and he served the city of Myra, also in Asia Minor.
Nicholas was raised as a devout Christian by well-to-do Christian parents. After their death, Nicholas gave away his inheritance to the poor and took a vow of poverty. He was imprisoned for his Christianity by the ruthless Roman Emperor, Diocletian. Nicholas was eventually released from prison, and he attended the Council of Nicea. At the council, a very unusual event took place, which is the topic of this article.
First, some more background on the Council of Nicea. Even before the Great Schism (when the Western Church and Eastern Church made their split), the Early Church had shown clear signs of a distinction between East and West. We in the Western Church tend to have a more “legal” view of Christian Theology. Now, I don’t mean “legalistic”; that’s a different matter. We tend to use legal terms and ideas when we discuss theology. “Adoption” “election” “sacrament” “justification” are all terms adopted from Roman law. The East, meanwhile, tends to view theology as more mystical. What we call “sacraments” they refer to as “mysteries”, where one thing is hidden in another. This has led to a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding between East and West.
Another difference between Eastern and Western Christianity is our views of the Trinity. While the West tends to think of the Trinity as three persons partaking of the same essence, the East views them in terms of a hierarchy. God the Father is the source of divinity for both the Son and the Spirit. That’s why the Creed is different in the East. In the West, we say “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” You’ll never hear “and the Son” in the East because the Father is the only source of divinity. The Son and the Spirit are not God in the same way as the Father is God. This might sound strange, or heretical to some, but the Western view has its own weaknesses as well.
The trouble started when a bishop of the Eastern Church named Arius who began preaching that Christ was not coequal with God the Father, but was instead a creation of God the Father. The first and greatest creation of God, but a creation nonetheless. Most of the Eastern Church, as well as some in the West, affirmed this doctrine, and there was nothing to really stop them from thinking this way; there wasn’t a credal statement to tell them that they were wrong. There were many, however, who spoke out against Arius, and the controversy threatened the integrity of the Early Church.
It’s worth mentioning that at that Christianity had only very recently become legalized. It was not the state religion, yet; that wouldn’t happen for quite some time yet. On paper, the Imperial Cult was still the state religion of the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine was favorably disposed to Christianity and had placed the Church under his personal protection. I can imagine he was baffled over this dispute, only having recently professed something resembling Christian faith.
The stakes were high; if the Church got this wrong, it would affect its doctrinal development for centuries to come. Preaching false doctrine could mean eternal damnation. A church schism would be simply disastrous at that time, just when Christianity was beginning to stand on its own two feet. It was vitally important that they get this right.
So a Church council was called to the city of Nicea. Attendees included Emperor Constantine, St. Athanasius, and of course, St. Nicholas. All listened as Arius made his arguments for why Jesus Christ was not fully God, but a “lesser God”. The council, including Nicholas, listened intently. When he heard as much as he could stand, Nicholas stood up and punched Arius dead in the face.
By now you’re thinking “That’s not very saintly”. And you’d be right. However, even the greatest saints have off days. Some of the most saintly people I know lose their tempers on occasion, and this was one of those occasions. I’m sure he realized his mistake soon after he made it, as so many of us with anger issues do. In his place, I would very likely do the same thing. And it’s not as though the rest of the council members thought this was acceptable behavior; Nicholas was promptly asked to leave until he could compose himself.
To me, this incident reminds us that everyone loses their temper on occasion. The Church Fathers, though virtuous men, were not perfect. They had flaws. This event does in no way eclipse the acts to service that defined the life of St. Nicholas. His zeal for Christ compelled him to perform these acts. In a way, his fistfight with Arius was an overflowing of that passion.
When I look around at myself and my fellow Christians, what I often see is a lack of passion. If more Christians today (and I do include myself here) followed Nicholas’ pious example, I believe that Christianity would look very different today. I’m not saying we should fight people who disagree with us; what I am saying is that we should hold to our beliefs as strongly as the Church Fathers did, to be willing to fight and die for our faith. We should be concerned with living out our faith through service to God and our neighbor, and then we won’t need to throw a punch.
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